Recently the NZ Herald published an investigation into New Zealand music in the charts. Its findings were grim: in 2017 only seven local songs made the top ten and six were by Lorde.
Compared with the heyday of mainstream music success in the early 2000s, on first glance, this decline seems tragic.
But charts are only one way to measure success and a seriously compromised one at that. The incorporation of streaming into the chart system has resulted in anomalies such as Ed Sheeran’s entire 2017 album appearing in NZ’s Top 40 singles chart – 16 songs in total.
The Herald's Joanna Hunkin says, “To get a chart hit now you need to have about a hundred thousand people stream your song in the period of a week. Previously you may have only needed a thousand people to buy your single.”
This is happening the world over, it’s not just a Kiwi phenomenon.
The early 2000s not only saw NZ music’s peak in terms of chart success, it also saw its commercial radio exposure hit an all-time high thanks to a voluntary quota system that aimed to reach 20% by 2006.
Related: How the charts actually work
Radio reached that target fairly regularly in 2005/2006, but it’s only reached 20% twice since then, both times very briefly and not since 2010.
In 2006 – the same year digital downloads were incorporated into the chart, something else happened: Kiwi FM.
Despite the unusual and slightly dubious nature of Kiwi FM’s corporate structure, at the time it was seen as a boon to a New Zealand music industry that was already thriving. However, it’s possible that instead of growing the mainstream success of local artists, Kiwi FM actually ghettoised it by reducing the impetus for commercial radio to fulfil its cultural commitment.
The imperative for other stations to invest in local artists was diluted.
The Herald’s article doesn’t really cover radio play. Although Hunkin works alongside staff at stations including ZM, Hauraki, Flava and The Hits (also owned by NZME) and received feedback from them on the article, she says, “One of the things when you do a big story like this is working out what are the core, essential issues that are going to progress it forward and what are very interesting but slightly time wasting detours.
“What it really came down to, particularly around the top 40 stations like ZM and The Edge, they’re specifically playing music that is in the top 40, so if there’s not a lot of New Zealand music they’re not [going to play it].”
But how does music get in the charts if no one can hear it? There are still more people listening to the radio than streaming music each week.
Radio is still the number one place people find new music (although for under 40's streaming is has now overtaken it).
Although radio figures now appear to be hovering around the fifteen percent mark, pop radio (ZM, The Edge) averages just ten percent local content and adult contemporary radio (The Hits, More FM) just seven.
Seven percent is also the average amount of kiwi music streamed by New Zealanders themselves and there's evidence that streaming is narrowing the pool of music we listen to. This last week the Spotify top ten in New Zealand only differed from Australia's by one song.
Streaming and radio aside, though – are their other ways to measure success?
You could be forgiven for thinking memes are more relevant than the charts these days, just ask Migos. Even being on a label isn't a necessary ingredient for success. Many artists today would rather be independent than be beholden to a corporate master, look at Kings and Dave Dobbyn.
And what about live music? The local scene is currently reinventing itself: small venues in big and small towns alike are being reinvigorated, and artists who don’t get radio play, are embarking on sold out nationwide tours.
Musicians are connecting directly with their audiences, and those loyal audiences are infinitely more valuable than casual listeners who might like a song but have no idea who it’s by.
Our musicians are also making their mark overseas. And it’s not just Lorde. Te Vaka, Aldous Harding, Nadia Reid, Fazerdaze, Marlon Williams, The Koi Boys, Modern Maori Quartet, Katchafire, and Joel Little – to name a few – have all had huge successes recently.
Rob Ruha was musical director on the te reo version of Disney’s Moana. Brooke Fraser is up for two Grammys.
This success was roundly ignored in a follow up opinion piece for the Herald by Karl Puschmann. He claimed the decline in NZ artists in the top 40 was a sign that our cultural identity is dead.
The following day Aldous Harding wrapped up a sold out national tour and Havelock North hosted ‘A night of Stars, Songs and Singalongs’, which featured an stellar line up including Anika Moa, Tami Neilson, TEEKS, Maisey Rika, Troy Kingi and Rob Ruha. Oh, and Dave Dobbyn for good measure.
Our cultural identity is just fine thank you.
In fact you could say that 2017 was a watershed year for New Zealand music. Kiwis have achieved things we never thought possible. Here's 11 highlights.
1. A group of teenagers made international waves by merging te reo Maori and heavy metal.
Alien Weaponry’s first single ‘Rū Ana Te Whenua’:
2. This folk artist from Dunedin made one of the year’s best albums.
The title track from Nadia Reid’s critically-acclaimed Preservation:
3. Rob Ruha translated a Disney soundtrack into te reo.
4. The soundtrack to that movie, made by New Zealanders who’ve been championing pacific music for twenty plus years is the fifth highest selling international album of 2017 for Universal records.
Opetaia Foa’I and Te Vaka performing ‘We Know The Way’:
5. Five amazing women were nominated for best song at the 2017 Silver Scrolls.
6. The NZ Music Awards had more diversity and quality than they’ve had in years.
7. This talented woman played Coachella then dropped her second album, which ended up being the best album of the year according to almost everyone.
Lorde performing ‘Green Light’ live on Saturday Night Live:
8. The Clean finally accepted the Hall of Fame award at the Silver Scrolls, which were held in Dunedin for the first time.
9. This guy made an album, live, in front of the whole world.
Neil Finn performing ‘Terrorise Me’ live on the internet: